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Gandhi's Second Life
Digital Gandhi hobnobs with dragons, baby tigers

 
 

 

Performance artist walks old icon into the digital age
by Kyle Murphy & Elizabeth R. Stark

Peaceful protest has never been so bizarre.

But performance artist Joseph DeLappe found solace as he walked 240 miles over three weeks through a virtual landscape filled with baby dragons, faux versions of Paris, and yes, a Nazi paraphernalia shop.     

DeLappe performed the walk on an ancient-looking treadmill hooked up to “Second Life,” an online virtual world.  While walking on the treadmill, he faced a large computer screen with a keyboard at the ready.

As DeLappe banged away at his keys, an animated version of Mohandas Gandhi, called an “avatar” walked gently across the digital landscape.

Many people “make an avatar that is a 6-foot-tall Amazon woman with gigantic breasts,” DeLappe said. “Why not something that is meaningful and humorous at the same time?”

As a fellow at the Eyebeam Gallery in Chelsea, which specializes in new media art, DeLappe and others have performed extensively online.  His work brings the seriousness of political protest to online games, where hijinks and unfettered fantasy usually reign supreme. 

DeLappe walked to re-enact Gandhi’s 1930 salt march to Dandi in India.  Gandhi walked 240 miles across his country over three weeks to protest British imperial rule and to assert the right of all Indians to harvest salt.  Joined by thousands of his countrymen, the real Gandhi’s protest helped steer India toward independence.

While Gandhi walked to protest British imperialism, DeLappe walked to examine Gandhi’s protest and “experience some part of what it was like.”

Joanna Raczkiewicz, the development manager of Eyebeam, said that DeLappe’s work is important because “contemporary art is a window into contemporary culture” and because DeLappe is pushing the boundaries of Second Life.

Engaging his body altered DeLappe’s mental space.  “I thought I would get bored,” he said, “but the sense of discovery and physically earning that experience” helped hold his interest. 

DeLappe dreamed about Second Life and had flash backs to the virtual world.  When “MGandhi” – the name of DeLappe’s virtual avatar – walked up steep cliffs, DeLappe pumped his arms and moved his legs faster, as if he was walking up a hill. Ironically, there was no change in resistance on the machine. 

The machine, itself, is simple:

 

 

Second Life is complex.  Users create avatars that can look like anything – humans, dragons, male model versions of Thomas Jefferson and even Hello Kitty.  The avatars move around Second Life’s landscape, which is created by Second Life’s users.  Avatars may purchase land and can build whatever they want upon it – whether it’s virtual versions of Guantanamo Bay, night clubs, replicas of scenery from the movie, “Lord of the Rings,” fabulous mansions or sweatshops.

DeLappe noted everyone in Second Life “is a performance artist.  I mean everyone in there is performing, so there’s the whole notion of the world being a stage.  But in that space it’s really true.”

While on his walk, DeLappe met other avatars and communicated with them through typing.  Many avatars wondered what DeLappe was doing, and found it strange that, in a world where it’s possible to create any character, DeLappe chose Gandhi.

DeLappe offered other avatars an in-game replica of Gandhi’s walking stick, with a note attached that described the project.  He asked baby dragons, to pose for a screen shot with him, and tried to get avatars to walk with him. 
“About 25 percent of the time, I got takers,” he said.

At Eyebeam, DeLappe also encouraged spectators to ask him questions.

Click to listen to audience reaction. Audio by Kyle Murphy

To watch DeLappe navigating Second Life like a pro can be strangely absorbing.  One viewer watched him for about an hour, but said she was less interested in the poltical implications of his act and more interested in the strange sights. 

Perry Bard, another artist who came to see the exhibit seemed to understand DeLappe’s efforts. “I had no idea what Second Life looked like,” she said, “but I gather there are nightclubs and a lot of entertainment, so it’s always important to inject something that will make people think differently."

Screenshots courtesy of Joseph DeLappe.